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Institute of Food Research Outreach and Public Engagement Workshop competition

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As part of the Institute of Food Research (IFR) Outreach and Public Engagement Workshop held on the 5 December 2013 we ran a competition to find the best outreach idea. Entrants were asked to describe their idea for an outreach event (if money was no object) in 280 characters. The competition closed four days before the workshop (Midday 02 Dec 2013) to allow time for judging to take place. Winners were announced following the keynote talk at the workshop.

IFR event

Networking session

Who: This project was co-ordinated by Helen Brown (a NCCPE ambassador) and the IFRs public engagement and communications teams. Research staff, admin staff and postgraduate students from the IFR were invited to take part.

What: Competition

Why: We ran this competition to encourage staff and students at the IFR to think about public engagement activities that they might like to run. We hoped that this competition would allow staff to ‘think big’ and generate ideas which could be used by the IFR in the future.

Where: Competition entries were submitted by email and the winners were announced during the IFR Outreach and Public Engagement Workshop.

When: October 20103 – 02 December 2013 (entries open), 05 Dec 2013 (winners announced)

Project description

On the 5 December the Institute of Food Research held an Outreach and Public Engagement Workshop. As part of this event we ran a competition in which staff and students from the IFR were asked to come up with an idea for an outreach or public engagement event. The idea could be related to any area of science within the IFRs remit and participants were encouraged to not be limited by space or funding restrictions. Entrants were asked to describe their ideas in 280 characters (the length of two tweets). The competition was described to staff and students during selected meetings and in email correspondence advertising the Research Outreach and Public Engagement Workshop. Entries were collected by a member of the event organising team and competition judging was undertaken by the organising team. Survey monkey was used to allow judges to rank the competition entries and then the two most popular ideas were chosen and awarded prizes. Prizes were donated by the Society of General Microbiology (2 copies of their book: ‘the good, the bad and the ugly – microbes), the IFR (1 copy of the book: ‘science communication, a practical guide for scientists’ for the first prize winner, and a box of chocolates for both winners). The winners were announced during the wrap up session of the Outreach and Public Engagement Workshop, following the keynote talk.

Results and outcomes

What worked well

The quality of the ideas received was good and as such we have been able to adapt some of the entries into outreach events and activities.

The competition was very easy to administer as entrants simply had to email their entries to a designated person who then compiled the entries into a single online format which was emailed to the judges for assessment. This simple format meant that scoring could be done in at the judges own discretion. The competition also had a low barrier to entry, with all staff and students at the IFR being eligible to enter. Entries were received from a cross section of IFR staff and students.

We stressed that entrants should not consider the cost of their idea and this meant that entries were much bolder and ambitious than those usually seen and planned at the IFR. We feel that this freedom helped entrants to maximise their creativity and think beyond the limitations that are usually imposed on PE events. The winning entry described a theme park in which the participant would take a ‘ride through your guts’ and learn about the path that food takes through the human body. We have since adapted aspects of this idea for the 2014 IFR Big Bang Fair entry. We do not believe that great ideas such as this would have been generated if we had not stressed that entrants should not be limited by cost.

What didn't work well

The number of entries was lower than anticipated. Following discussion, by members of the organising committee, we have several ideas as to why this could be:

  • Firstly the competition rules were not finalised and published in the first round of publicity about the workshop. Competition rules were mainly publicised by word of mouth and some email correspondence at least one month before the closing date, but we believe that if they had been added to the posters displayed around the IFR this could have generated more interest, and participation.
  • Secondly, the competition was a secondary event to the workshop itself and designed to interest staff and students in the workshop. We hoped that the completion would generate more interest in the workshop, increase attendance and generate conversations about outreach and public engagement ideas. If the competition had been given more prominence at the outreach and public engagement workshop then perhaps participation would have been higher. 
  • Finally the number of and details about the prizes were not made available until they were awarded (as the exact details were not known until the week of the workshop), many competitions advertise the prizes upfront to motivate greater participation. For future competitions of this nature we believe it might be useful give full details of rules, details of the prizes and competition closing dates from the start of the advertising campaign.

It was also clear that some entrants did not understand the 280 character limit we had imposed. We believe that this could be because some staff and students are still not familiar with Twitter and how to formulate comments and ideas into 140 (or in this case 280) characters. Some of the entries we received contained very well formulated and planned activities with a great deal of detail, these ideas could not be fully visualised in 280 characters. We also believe there could have been confusion between 280 characters and 280 words, as many staff are used to working to a word limit of approximately 300 words when writing abstracts for conferences and journal articles. In order to improve future competitions we speculate that there could be two categories:

  1. Describe your idea for an outreach/public engagement event in a tweet (140 characters)
  2. Give a short description of your idea for an outreach/public engagement event (max 250 words)

This format would allow us to capture both fully formed ideas and those in the initial development stages. It would also allow staff and students to choose a format they are come comfortable with (either social media format or conference abstract format), rather than imposing one format on all. The IFR also plans to carry out training on the use of social media in the near future and as social media become increasingly well used by researchers we believe that the twitter format/character restrictions will become less confusing for entrants.


Helen Brown:

Helen is a NCCPE Public Engagement Ambassador, see her profile here.